Dar to Dunoon: notable African artwork sourced by Naomi Mitchison to be exhibited

Dr Kate Cowcher, centre, with St Andrews alumni and project research assistants, Meredith Loper, left, and Elikem Logan, right, with modern African artworks at Lochgilphead High School in 2019.
Dr Kate Cowcher, centre, with St Andrews alumni and project research assistants, Meredith Loper, left, and Elikem Logan, right, with modern African artworks at Lochgilphead High School in 2019.

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An overlooked collection of modern African art in Argyll and Bute schools has been rediscovered by academics at the University of St Andrews.

The collection, which belongs to Argyll and Bute Council, is to now go on public display.

The paintings, prints and drawings, purchased from Uganda, Kenya, Zambia, Tanzania and South Africa, were acquired for the Argyll Collection, a public art initiative founded by writer Naomi Mitchison, who lived in Carradale before her death in 1999 aged 101, and art advisor Jim Tyre, in the early 1960s for the people of Argyll and Bute.

In the years since they were purchased, the historical significance of these works had been overlooked, with many misattributed and their stories untold.

New research reveals that they are by some of the continent’s most notable modernist artists; together they provide a range of insights into the interests and concerns that pervaded the era of independence.

Dar to Dunoon: Modern African Art from the Argyll Collection will exhibit 12 works of modern art from east and southern Africa at Dunoon Burgh Hall from May 21.

The collection has been the subject of a partnership with the School of Art History at the University of St Andrews, led by Dr Kate Cowcher, in conjunction with Madeleine Conn, cultural co-ordinator for Argyll and Bute Council.

As a result of the research project, 10 out of 12 works can now be confidently attributed to major modernist artists, including Tanzania’s Samuel Ntiro, Uganda’s Jak Katarikawe, Zambia’s Henry Tayali and South Africa’s Lucky Sibya.

Samuel Ntiro's Chopping Wood, circa 1967.
Samuel Ntiro’s Chopping Wood, circa 1967.

Dar to Dunoon will exhibit the works of these artists, along with their biographies and related contextual material.

Dr Cowcher said: ‘The Argyll Collection is a rich public collection of mostly Scottish art, but it has these important African additions about which little was known.

‘It has been remarkable to uncover their histories. To have the opportunity to bring these artworks together and share their stories with those living in the area, as well as further afield, is a privilege.’

Mitchison acquired these works primarily for use in schools, where she hoped that children in Scotland’s rural communities could study them and enjoy them.

Yvonne McNeilly, Argyll and Bute Council’s policy lead for education, said: ‘We are very lucky to have such a wide and varied art collection in our schools, and our partnership with St Andrews has enabled us to rediscover the rich histories of the modern African art collection.

‘This has been central to new creative education projects that pupils have been working on with artists to explore the collection.’

The art that Mitchison purchased, from both professionally trained and self-taught artists, was diverse and complex.

Several pieces came from the Margaret Trowell School of Industrial and Fine Arts at what is now Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.

Artwork by Henry Tayali, title unknown, circa 1971.
Artwork by Henry Tayali, title unknown, circa 1971.

The title of the exhibition derives from an archival find: a letter sent from Dar es Salaam to Dunoon in 1967 by the artist and diplomat, Samuel Ntiro, who soon became Tanzania’s Commissioner of Culture.

Mitchison had purchased Ntiro’s ‘Chopping Wood’ in Dar in 1967, and the artist personally packaged and sent it to Scotland, along with a letter and a photograph of himself.

Speaking to the Courier this week, Dr Cowcher, who has Campbeltown heritage, revealed that she uncovered some personal links to the project. She said: ‘My late grandmother, Sheila Cowcher, born Jeannie Robertson Ross, was born in Campbeltown.

‘I first started looking into this project when I was living in the US and teaching at the University of Maryland — but I was so excited at the prospect of learning more about Argyll because it was a place Grandma used to talk about.

‘One surprising find in the whole process of this project has been discovering that my late great-uncle — my grandmother’s brother-in-law Bill McCartney — was head of art at Dunoon Grammar School in the 1960s when Mitchison was building up this collection. He knew Jim Tyre well and, I suspect, must have met Mitchison. This project has been full of fascinating discoveries, but my personal family connections were entirely unanticipated!’